Tools of language and culture transform the dialectally diverse classroom
Rebecca S. Wheeler
Department of English
Christopher Newport University
Newport News, VA 23606
Newsome Park Elementary School
4200 Marshall Ave.
Newport News, VA 23607
||Mrs. Swords, why you be teachin' maf in da aftanoon?
||Why do I WHAT?
||Why you be teachin' maf in da aftanoon?
||Why do I what?
||Why you be teachin' maf in da aftanoon?
||We don't say, "why you be teaching math in the afternoon..." We say, "why are you teaching math in the afternoon?"
But the next day the child would begin again, "Mrs. Swords, why do we be havin' maf in da aftanoon?" And Swords would reply, "Why do we WHAT?" It was always the same. She would attempt to "correct" the child's "error," but it was clear that no learning was taking place.
Rachel Swords began her career in an urban elementary school four years ago, by correcting every sentence she deemed incorrect. However, she noticed as time went on that her students were asking significantly fewer questions. She would call for questions and her students would begin: "Mrs. Swords, why you be... is you? Ain't you? Never mind." The students knew she was going to correct them. They tried to ask the question in the form the school system wanted, but they didn't know how. Rather than risk the embarrassment of being corrected in front of the class, students became silent.
After Swords realized why the questions had stopped, she tried another, more passive approach. When a child asked "Mrs. Swords, why you be teachin' maf afta lunch?", she would repeat their question in Mainstream American English ("Why do I teach math after lunch?") and then answer it, also in the same language variety. While this method didn't embarrass the children or hinder their questioning, the children's language did not change. Even though Swords consistently corrected their speech and writing, her students still did not learn the standard English forms.
Concern with the vernacular dialects our children bring to school has been long-standing. Heath (1983) noted that school desegregation in the 1960s brought out these issues. "Academic questions about how children talk when they come to school and what educators should know and do about oral and written language were echoed in practical pleas of teachers who asked: 'What do I do in my classroom on Monday morning?' " (p. 1).
Now, more than 30 years later, teachers remain concerned. Christenbury (2000) has observed that "[o]ne of the most controversial - and difficult - issues for English teachers is their responsibility to students who speak what is considered "nonstandard" English, English that violates the usage rules we often mistakenly call 'grammar'" (p. 202).
Christenbury's comment, subtle and revealing, sets the stage for the central focus of our article. English teachers routinely equate standard English with "grammar," as if other language varieties and styles lack grammar, the systematic and rule-governed backbone of language. Yet, the child who speaks in a vernacular dialect is not making language errors; Instead, she or he is speaking correctly in the language of the home discourse community. Teachers can draw upon the language strengths of urban learners to help students codeswitch -- choose the language variety appropriate to the time, place, audience and communicative purpose. In doing so, we honor linguistic and cultural diversity, all the while fostering students' mastery of the Language of Wider Communication, the de-facto lingua franca of the US.
The motivation for this article lies in our desire to bring the insights of 20th century linguistics to bear on the achievement gap, the "devastating rates at which schools fail African American students" (Rickford, 1999, p. 22). Rickford asserted that, "the evidence that schools are failing massive numbers of African students with existing methods is so overwhelming that it would be counterproductive and offensive to continue using them uncritically" (p. 3). Accordingly, we offer some of our ideas for creating an accessible, research-based approach to language arts in the dialectally diverse, multicultural classroom.
While the jury is still out on whether dialect contrast actually interferes with reading comprehension, it is clearly the case that when an urban teacher tells minority-language students that their language is wrong and error-filled, she creates a seriously deleterious effect in the classroom. As the teacher seeks to eradicate vernacular language and culture, not only does she remove a link that could bring relevance to the classroom lives of the children, but she assails the child's family and home community, thus contributing to a stern barrier between the values of home and school.
As a result, even if the contrast of dialect structure itself is not found to significantly impede children's performance, teachers' expectations and perspectives on dialects, cultures, and the vernacular speakers themselves do hamper children's learning. Hence, an approach that affirms the rule-governed nature of all language varieties holds promise in fostering a culturally compatible classroom. In turn, a culturally consonant classroom, engaging the student far more broadly, holds promise for reducing the achievement gap in America.
We chart our course in two voices, that of a University professor, and that of an urban 3rd grade teacher. Swords, the urban teacher, shares how she moved from a monodialectal, monocultural model to a multidialectal, multicultural model of language arts. Understanding the nature of language variation (across region, ethnic identity, social class, and across language styles and registers) provides the language arts teacher a fertile ground from which to build a welcoming, multicultural language arts classroom.
Traditional Language Arts Methods Fail Many African American Students
Swords became involved in this project because of her concern over how her students fared on the 2000 state-wide tests. "When last year's disaggregated scores for the Virginia Standards of Learning tests (SOL) were put up on the board, in every case, our Black children were performing much lower than our White children. It is very disheartening to say that I've taught the same way to all the children all year long and my White children are passing the tests and my Black children are not. Then our principal put up the scores for the entire district; it looked exactly the same. The African American vernacular speaking children are doing significantly worse on the writing test - not two or three points -- in some schools, African American students scored 36 points lower than White children on average."
Such disparities of language performance are neither isolated nor restricted to Virginia. Thus, Rickford (1996) reported the results of a study of student writing performance across school districts contrasting in ethnicity and socio-economic standing. The study revealed that:
- third grade kids in the primarily white, middle class Palo Alto School District scored on the 94th percentile in writing; by the [sixth] grade, they had topped out at the 99[th] percentile. By contrast, third grade kids in primarily African American working class East Palo Alto (Ravenswood School District) scored on the 21st percentile in writing, but by the sixth grade, they had fallen to the 3rd percentile, almost to the very bottom (p. 1).
Similar statistics can be found in many other school districts and states. Minority language children seem to be confronting a brick wall when it comes to performing in the public schools.
Why Do African American Children Struggle in our Schools?
The question of why African American students struggle revolves around a thicket of issues concerning poverty, distribution of goods and resources, physical plant and the training of teachers in urban schools, language and culture, and ethnic and linguistic bias in standardized tests, just to name a few factors. While all of these issues need to be addressed, we focus here on approaches to language and culture in the linguistically diverse urban classroom.
To begin with, we know that many urban African American children speak a language variety -- African American Vernacular English (AAVE) -- different from the language of the school (Delpit, 1995; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998). While speaking a vernacular dialect has been correlated with reading failure, scholars continue to debate whether dialectal contrasts cause failure.
As of the mid 1990's, "the conclusion of most sociolinguists was that the semantic and structural differences between AAVE and other dialects were not great enough to be the primary causes of reading failure" (Labov, 1995, pp. 48-49). Indeed, some educational researchers have found no particular dialectal intrusion in the reading process (Goodman and Goodman, 2000). Yet, others demonstrated that "dialect is a source of reading interference" for speakers of AAVE and that the syntax of AAVE verb phrases resulted in African American students losing information regarding time structure of events in the test reading passage (Steffensen et. al., 1982, p. 296). And in an experiment on vernacular speakers' acquisition of consonant clusters, Labov and Baker (n.d.) found that "variability in speech is responsible in part for difficulties in decoding" standard English (p. 15, emphasis added). Thus, results are inconclusive on whether contrast of dialect structure itself hampers language-minority children in reading standard English.
Beyond linguistic structure, cultural conflict lies at the heart of why our schools fail African Americans. Thus, in Harlem, the child's "cultural system ... opposed the values of the school system, which was seen as the particular possession and expression of the dominant white society" (Labov, 1995, p. 42). In return, schools may ban literature reflecting African American language and culture; One Virginia librarian commented to us that "no children's books containing African American dialect are available in our school. This is a very controversial topic." As Smitherman observed, "when you lambast the home language that kids bring to school, you ain just dissin dem, you talking bout they mommas!" (quoted in Richardson, 2002, p. 677).
Further, as teachers absorb "widespread, destructive myths about language variation" (Wolfram, 1999, p. 78), their cultural vantage turns to pedagogical damage. In other words, whether Black or White, a teacher is likely to consider a child speaking African American Vernacular English as slower, less able, and less intelligent than the child who speaks standard English (Labov, 1995). Such dialect prejudice reduces teacher expectations for the child's abilities (Baugh, 2000). As teacher expectations are reduced, so potential child performance is diminished (Delpit and Dowdy, 2002; Nieto, 2000). No wonder that under these conditions, "the longer African American inner city kids stay in school, the worse they do" (Rickford, 1996, p. 1).
Traditional Responses to Language Varieties: Correction Does Not Work
It is not surprising that Swords' initial attempts to "correct" her children's language did not produce change in their performance. As Gilyard (1991) shares in his account of his life as a Black child in the American educational system, "generations of Black English speakers have been subjected to 'correction' programs that haven't worked" (p. 114).
Teachers envision a single "right way" to construct a sentence (Birch, 2001) and so criticize student writing such as:
- I have two sister and two brother.
- Christopher family moved to Spain.
- Last year, he watch all the shows.
Teachers often view this kind of writing as error-filled, believing that the child does not know how to show plurality, possession, and tense or has problems. Seeing the student as having left off the plural marker, the apostrophe '-s,' and '-ed,' teachers respond to students, "that's not how you do it!" This approach seeks to eradicate the child's home language.
Christenbury (2000) observes, "telling or teaching students that their language is wrong or bad is not only damaging, but false" (p. 203). Doing so presupposes that only one language form is "correct" in structure and that that form is "good" in all contexts. Joos (1961) comments,
It is still our custom unhesitatingly and unthinkingly to demand that the clocks of language all be set to Central Standard time.... But English, like national languages in general, has five clocks. And the times that they tell are not simply earlier and later; they differ sidewise, too, and in several directions. Naturally. A community has a complex structure, with variously differing needs and occasions. How could it scrape along with only one pattern of English usage? (pp. 4-5).
While the traditional approach attempts to correct, repress, eradicate, or subtract student language which differs from the standard written target (Gilyard, 1991; McWhorter, 1998), once we recognize that language comes in different varieties and styles and that each is systematic, and rule-governed, a different response to language becomes possible (Adger, Christian and Taylor, 1999; Delpit, 1995; Perry and Delpit, 1998; Smitherman, 1981; Wolfram, Adger and Christian, 1999).
Instead of seeking to correct or eradicate styles of language, we may add language varieties to the child's linguistic toolbox, bringing a pluralistic vantage to language in the classroom (Gilyard, 1991; McWhorter, 1998). Such an approach allows us to maintain the language of the student's home community (NCTE, n.d.), all the while adding the linguistic tools needed for success in our broader society - the tool of Mainstream American English.
Key Notions from Applied Linguistics
A cluster of notions from applied linguistics underlie our work with language varieties in the classroom: dialect, language variety, style and register. Three insights about language underlie all of these terms:
A dialect is "variety of the language associated with a particular regional or social group" (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998, p. 350). Since everyone is associated with a particular regional or social group, everyone speaks a dialect. Also known as language varieties, dialects vary in structure (sound, vocabulary, grammar and social conventions for structuring conversations) on the basis of speaker "age, socioeconomic status, gender, ethnic group membership, and geographic region" (Wolfram, Adger, and Christian, 1999, p. 37). Notice that this means that so-called "standard" English is a dialect of English. Contrary to popular understanding, " '[d]ialect' does not mean a marginal, archaic, rustic, or degraded mode of speech" (Pullum, 1999, p. 44).
- Language is structured.
- Language varies by circumstance of use.
- Difference is distinct from deficiency.
Register refers to the ways in which language varies by specific speech situations [e.g., newspaper headlines, rituals, recipes, technical writing and even baby talk].
While variation in language structure is always present, a different kind of variation lies in the public's attitudes toward language. "Standard" English is often called "good" English while "nonstandard" English is considered "bad." These judgments are not based on linguistic grounds, but on sociopolitical considerations. Thus, what we call the standard is the language variety "associated with middle-class, educated, native speakers of the region" (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998, p. 284). People regard this variety as good because they regard its speakers as meritorious, but this judgment has nothing to do with an inherent structural superiority of so-called "standard" English.
Vernaculars (AKA non-standard varieties) are those "varieties of a language which are not classified as standard dialects" (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998, p. 13). They contain socially stigmatized features such as the so-called English double negative ("I ain't got none") or irregular verb forms ("I seen it"). Just as the public holds standard varieties in high regard because of their high regard for their speakers, the public holds vernaculars in low regard and typically views its speakers with disregard. The judgment of badness is sociopolitical and has nothing to do with any structural inadequacy of vernacular dialects.
Finally, "standard" English is a misnomer, implying that only one standard exists. Yet, we can readily identify a range of standards, from Formal Standard English (Written Standard English of grammar books, reference works, and the most established mainstream authors), Informal Standard English (a spoken variety defined by the absence of socially stigmatized structures), as well as Regional Standards (the accepted dialect of English in a particular region) (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998).
Although the issues of language standardization and instruction are complex, our core point remains: "Language is structured. Its structure varies by circumstance." But to perceive this, we must let go of blinding conventional assumptions. Only then can we build upon the strengths of the language each child brings to school.
Discovering a New Vantage on Language in the Classroom
In Wheeler's class, language varieties in the schools and communities, graduate students explored how all language is structured and that the choice of language form is based on setting. This insight is actually quite hard to hear, so immersed is our culture in the view that standard English is the only real language and everything else is degraded. But when we examined our assumptions, in the class, we could perceive structures and patterns we hadn't before recognized.
Students found classroom results reported from Chicago and Georgia particularly revealing. In Chicago, Taylor (1991) studied student performance across two kinds of college writing classrooms. With one group, she used the traditional English department techniques and in the other classroom, she led her students in explicit discovery, through contrasting the grammatical patterns of AAVE and SE. The control group, using the correctionist model, showed an 8.5% increase in African American features in their writing after 11 weeks, but the experimental group, using a technique called contrastive analysis, showed a remarkable 59.3% decrease in African American vernacular features. Taylor observed that students had been neither "aware of their dialect" nor of "grammatical black English features that interfere in their writing" (p. 150). By contrasting the language varieties, students were able to learn the detailed differences between the two, thereby "limit[ing] AAVE intrusions into their SE usage" (Rickford, 1997, p. 4).
The same kind of approach was also implemented by teachers in DeKalb County, Georgia who helped young speakers of minority dialects explicitly contrast their mother tongue with the standard. Thus, when a fifth-grader answered a question with a double negative ("not no more"), the teacher prompted the student to "codeswitch," to which the student replied, "not any more." The children learned to switch from their home speech to school speech at appropriate times and places, and that "the dialect they might use at home is valuable and 'effective' in that setting, but not for school, for work - or for American democracy" (Cumming, 1997, p. B1). This program has been designated a "center of excellence" by the National Council of Teachers of English.
Swords Speaks of Her Classroom Journey: Moving from Correction to Contrast
In my own classroom, I noticed that vernacular patterns intruded in many of my students' writings. As a correctionist, I would explain what we do and do not say. For example, when a student wrote, "the three friend went for a walk," my initial reaction was to correct my student's grammar by explaining the need for an '-s' on the end of plural nouns. But after Wheeler's class, I decided to use the contrastive approach.
The first notion students needed was that language varies (among other things) by formality of situation. To teach this concept, we discussed formal and informal clothing. First, I asked students what kind of clothes they wore to school. Since the school has a fairly strict dress code, the students named permitted clothing such as collared shirts, slacks, and belts. I then asked the students what they liked to wear at home on the weekends and they responded, "jeans, tee shirts, sweatpants, and swimsuits."
We then brainstormed places or events that we might attend, aside from school, where more formal clothing was required. The students gave examples such as church, weddings, graduations. They then determined that informal clothing would be more appropriate for playing basketball, watching TV, and going to the pool.
I then asked how their language might differ between formal and informal situations. The students explained that "yes, sir" and "excuse me" were formal and that "yo, wa's up?" and "he ain' nobody" were more informal. Also, as we thought back on an exchange between two students in our class, I wrote the following on the board for group discussion.
Student 1: "Yo, Mz. Swords! Dat junk be tight!"
Student 2: "McKinzie! You ain sposed ta talk t' Mrs. Swords dat way."
Clearly, students come to school already having a good grasp of language style (the variation language shows in levels of formality), within their own variety, here, AAVE. In this way, my students were able to use their own prior knowledge to define formal and informal language.
We applied our understanding to the grammar of sentences. Using chart paper, I created two columns of sentences drawn from my students' own writing with the left one written in standard English ('I have two dogs') and the right showing the same sentences written in a vernacular ('I have two dog'), the style that many students speak.
I labeled the SE examples as "formal/written language" and the vernacular examples as "informal/spoken language." We began with plural patterns, because I knew that my students would immediately see the difference between the formal and informal usage. Notice my placement of the columns: By putting SWE on the left side, and AAVE on the right, given our left-right reading conventions, I implicitly (and later explicitly) suggest that we may move not only from vernacular to standard, but also from standard to vernacular. Such even-handedness between varieties is crucial to our enterprise.
We then compared and contrasted the sentences in each column. Immediately, one child said, "Oh, that's wrong. All the ones on that side (informal) are wrong and the ones on the other side (formal) are right." But another child said, "How is it wrong? Mrs. Swords wrote it!" Students were clearly confused. After all, since this was my second year of working with these children, and I had spent more than a year teaching them the right and wrong way to construct a sentence, they couldn't figure out why I would purposely write an incorrect sentence.
To address the students' confusion, I reminded them about our explorations of formal and informal styles of clothing and language. We looked at how language varies by region of the country and I talked about how I switch my language to suit the setting. For example, I have a rather thick southern accent. At home I might say, "I'm fixin' to go the store -- ya'll need anything?" However, I certainly wouldn't ask my fellow Virginia teachers, "I'm fixin' to make copies - ya'll need any?" I know this language variety is not appropriate at school. Instead, I might say, "I'm going to make some copies, do you need any?" I talked to the students about how I change my language setting-by-setting and told them that when I make these language choices, I am codeswitching.
To codeswitch is to choose the pattern of language appropriate to the context. This is what I want my students to be able to do - choose the language form appropriate to the time, place, audience and communicative purpose (Ezarik, 2002). To support children in learning how to codeswitch between informal and formal language patterns, we use a classroom technique called contrastive analysis (Baugh, 1999; Cumming, 1997; Rickford, 1998; Schierloh, 1991; Taylor, 1991; Wheeler, 2001).
Of course, the contrasts of formal/informal (or written/spoken, or home/school) are oversimplifications of the different ways that language is patterned by variety and style, but the key point I wanted to convey was one of contrast - that different language patterns are appropriate to different contexts. Formal/informal was a rough and ready way to get that notion across with third graders.
Moving back to the chart, I asked the students if they understood what each sentence meant and asked if the informal sentence, "I have 2 dog," had the same meaning as the formal one, "I have 2 dogs." Again, the class agreed they did, so, I asked, "if we can tell what they mean, what differences do you see between the two columns?"
Since we had previously talked about nouns and pronouns, the children were easily able to articulate responses. One child explained, "in this one (the formal form), the noun has an '-s' on it." I asked, "what does that mean? What is the '-s' doing there?" They said, "it's making it more than one." We talked about how the '-s' makes it more than one. I then explained that this is the way we show "more than one" in formal language (see Figure 1). To help guide children, I created a heading -- "How to show 'more than one'" -- for the contrastive patterns they were discovering. Under the formal column, following the children's observation, I wrote "-s."
|I have two dogs
||I have two dog
|Taylor likes cats
||Taylor likes cat
|All the boys...
||All the boy...
|How to show "more than one"
other words in the paragraph
other words in the sentence
Figure 1: Discovering the rules for plural patterns across language varieties.
Then we looked at the informal example, exploring its patterns. Reminding the children that the examples had the same meaning, I asked how the informal sentence shows us that the number is more than one. One kid said, "You know it's more than one because it has the number 'two' in it." So I wrote in the column on informal examples "number words," and commented that "number words show there's more than one." Then we looked at "Taylor likes cat." There's nothing in that sentence that tells you it's more than one cat. The children explained, "You have to look at the whole paragraph." So I wrote, "other words in the paragraph," and commented "other words in the paragraph show there's more than one." Next we looked at "all the boy are here today." I asked, "What tells you there is more than one boy?" One child replied, "The other words in the sentence - 'all'." So, I wrote on our chart, "Other words in the sentence." The children explored and named the contrasts in grammatical patterning between formal and informal language. Our plural chart (along with charts for possessive and tense) stayed up on our classroom walls for easy reference during the school day.
Students Discover Possessive Patterns across Language Varieties
Another lesson I used was to give students a chart comparing sentences with formal and informal possessive structures. Figure 2 provides an example, but I always use sentences selected from students' writing.
|Directions: Write three more Informal and three more Formal sentences that include possessive patterns. Then answer the questions below.
|Taylor cat is black.
||Taylor's cat is black.
|The boy coat is torn.
||The boy's coat is torn.
|A giraffe neck is long.
||A giraffe's neck is long.
|Did you see the teacher pen?
||Did you see the teacher's pen?
|What is the rule for using possessive patterns in Informal English?
|What is the rule for using possessive patterns in Formal English?
Figure 2: Discovering the rules for possessive patterns across language varieties.
I wrote the term "possessive" on the board, and asked if the students knew what it meant. If children don't know, I explain that possession means "someone owns something" and provide several examples.
Students looked closely at the underlined words on the chart and worked in small groups to find ways to describe how each language variety expresses ownership. When the entire class reconvened, students shared their responses and constructed a rule for using possessive patterns in the two language varieties. For example, in informal English, possession = owner + owned ('the boy coat'). However, in formal English, possession = owner + 's + owned ('the boy's coat'). Once this rule was determined, students made up additional examples. Through these instructional strategies, we discover the grammatical rules of each language variety.
Language Varieties in Reading and Writing
Like most teachers, I integrate literature into the topics we are currently studying. My interest in using contrastive analysis was reflected in many of my literary selections. One of the first linguistically enriched texts I introduced to my students was Flossie and the Fox by Patricia McKissack (1986). In this story, Flossie speaks in the patterns of AAVE while the fox speaks in standard English patterns. This book quickly became a favorite among my students, who chose it for every student-selected read-aloud. I was delighted when at the third reading, without any prompting, children all joined in choral call of one particular line: "Shucks! You aine no fox. You a rabbit, all the time trying to fool me." Kids were engaged with this reading.
After contrasting several different grammatical patterns and reading literature reflecting differing language varieties, it was time for students to implement their new understanding of language varieties in dialogues within their own writing. I initiated a discussion about how different characters use different speech patterns, and several children mentioned their favorite book, Flossie and the Fox. We discussed how the different voices of Flossie and the fox made the book more interesting.
Following the discussion, the class created dialogue for a story we were writing together about a teacher and a giant cockroach. When I asked who would speak in what language style, the students decided the teacher would speak informal English while the cockroach would use formal speech.
After completing several lines of our story, I asked the students to think about the characters in their own stories and decide the speech style each would use. Some had each character speak with formal English, others chose for each character to use informal, while other students mixed it up as we had done in our collective story, with both formal and informal dialogue.
I have seen tremendous growth in my students' command of language. Prior to teaching codeswitching, my students simply guessed what language form was expected. One student explained, "It's because you don't know how to say it and you're just wondering how you're suppose to say it." Now that I teach contrastive analysis, my students are becoming clear about the contrasts between formal and informal language. Students also understand that just as one tool doesn't suit all jobs, neither does one language style suit all communication tasks. Indeed, a well-stocked linguistic toolbox offers a diverse range of language forms to the mature speaker and writer.
Responding to Frequently Asked Questions
Crucially, in our work on codeswitching between language varieties, we are not saying, "anything goes." We are not ignoring language, and we are not "making allowances." We pay considerable attention to helping children command the intricacies of choosing the language appropriate to the time, place, audience and purpose. We are not implying that the child does not need to learn standard English. Indeed, in the broader American society, all children need to command Mainstream American English, the language variety often required in formal settings.
However, the issue of who learns what language is deeply political, rooted in the social and cultural structure of our society (Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1998; Nieto, 2000). It can be a very damaging human experience for an AAVE-speaking child to learn Mainstream American English while the teacher dismisses AAVE as broken and error-filled.
With contrastive analysis, we move to break the cycle. Exercising their analytic eye, the teacher and all students, Black, White, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, alike, engage in critical thinking as they discover and analyze the patterns of diverse language varieties. In doing so, we take steps to unbind the "widespread, destructive myths about language variation" that underlie the dialect prejudice so rampant in our nation (Wolfram, 1999, p. 78).
Techniques of contrastive analysis also offer students tangible help in interpreting standardized test questions. Students come to understand that when the test asks whether a sentence is "correct" or "incorrect," it is asking for the patterns of the mainstream written language. This vantage helps students know to choose the formal English patterns on test questions. Indeed, as Rickford (1998) observes, "teaching methods which DO take vernacular dialects into account in teaching the standard work better than those which DO NOT" (p. 1).
Codeswitching and knowledge of language varieties also serve children during the writing process. As children construct story narrative, they choose a range of language styles to enhance character. When the task is to produce formal English, we make editing into a game. After students have completed the substantive content of their reports, children highlight their successes in matching the patterns of standard English. If students find a sentence still in informal patterns, they change it to formal English, and then highlight the sentence. Students are enthusiastic about noting their grammar successes.
Further, students show an increased conscious command of standard English as well as ability to codeswitch. David, an African American student, wrote "Spy Mouse and the Broken Globe," a story in which Spy Mouse spoke informally ("I won't do nothin' to you"), while David's author's note used uniquely formal English patterns. Explaining that while he knew formal English, Spy Mouse did not, David was able to independently articulate the reasons for his language choices, an impressive accomplishment for any student, let alone an urban third grader.
Our schools have long served a dialectally diverse population. We received a wake-up call more than 20 years ago when a northern school system was sued for educational malpractice. In 1979, "Michigan Legal services filed suit ... on behalf of fifteen black, economically deprived children residing in a low-income housing project" (Smitherman, 1981, p. 133). Their case, Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children v. Ann Arbor School District Board, resulted in a decision for the plaintiffs. The court found that the suit had merit since federal law directed that "no child should be deprived of equal educational opportunity because of the failure of an educational agency to take appropriate action to overcome linguistic barriers" (Labov, 1995, p. 46).
The issue still before us today is how to take "appropriate action to overcome linguistic barriers."
Swords has taken appropriate action. Her students have come alive. While their engagement and excitement with learning hold center stage, test results are also revealing. After just one year of the approach discussed in this article, her Black and White children performed equally well on year-end benchmarks. Indeed, in math and science, African American children outperformed European American children.
We believe that a pluralist response to language varieties holds promise for enhancing student performance and positively transforming the language arts classroom. The reasons for student productivity are complex. Not simply, or even perhaps primarily, a matter of fostering children's decoding and production of standard English, the crucial point may be that when we bring the child's language and culture into the classroom, we invite the whole child in. Doing so contributes signally to "the trellis of our profession - and the most crucial element of school culture ...-- an ethos hospitable to the promotion of human learning" (Barth, 2002, p. 11). In this fashion, codeswitching and contrastive analysis offer potent tools of language and culture for transforming language arts practice in America.
- Adger, C. T., Christian, D. and Taylor, O. (Eds.). (1999). Making the connection: Language and academic achievement among African American students. VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.
- Barth, R. (2002). The culture builder. Education Leadership, 59, 6-11.
- Baugh, J. (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Baugh, J. (1999). Out of the mouths of slaves: African American language and educational malpractice. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Birch, B. (2001). Grammar standards: It's all in your attitude. Language Arts, 78, 535-542.
- Christenbury, L. (2000). Making the journey: Being and becoming a teacher of English language arts (2nd ed.). NH: Boynton/Cook Heinemann.
- Cumming, D. (1997, January 9). A different approach to teaching language. The Atlanta Constitution, p. B1.
- Delpit, L. (1995). Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
- Delpit, L. and Dowdy, J. (2002). The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom. New York: The New Press.
- Ezarik, M. (2002). A time and a place [Electronic version]. District Administration: K-12 Education Leadership, Curriculum, Technology and Trends, May, 2002, 38 - 42. Retrieved July 24, 2002, from http://www.districtadministration.com/story.asp?txtFilename=archives/May2002/timeplace.htm
- Gilyard, K. (1991). Voices of the self: A study of language competence. Detroit: Wayne State Press.
- Goodman, Y. and Goodman, D. (2000). "I hate 'postrophe s": Issues of dialect and reading proficiency. In J. Peyton, et al. (Eds.), Language in action: New studies of language in society (pp. 408 - 435). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Joos, M. (1961). The five clocks: A linguistic excursion into the five styles of English usage. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
- Labov, W. (1995). Can reading failure be reversed? A linguistic approach to the question. In V. Gadsen and D. Wagner (Eds.), Literacy among African-American youth (pp. 39 - 68). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
- Labov, W. and Baker, B. (n.d.). Linguistic component, African American literacy and culture project. Retrieved June 28, 2002, from the William Labov Website: http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~wlabov/FinalReport.html
- McKissack, P. (1986). Flossie and the fox. New York: Dial Press.
- McWhorter, J. (1998). The word on the street: Debunking the myth of pure standard English. New York: Plenam Press.
- Nieto, S. (2000). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.
- NCTE Positions and Guidelines (n.d.). Students' right to their own language. Retrieved December 17, 2002, from http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/righttoownlanguage
- Perry, T., and Delpit, L. (Eds.). (1998). The real Ebonics debate: Power, language, and the education of African American children. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Pullum, G. (1999). African American Vernacular English is not standard English with mistakes. In R. S. Wheeler (Ed.), The workings of language: From prescriptions to perspectives (pp. 59-66). Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Richardson, E. (2002). 'To protect and serve': African American female literacies. College Composition and Communication, 53, 675-704.
- Rickford, J. R. (1999). Language diversity and academic achievement in the education of African American students: An overview of the issues. In C. Adger, D. Christian and O. Taylor (Eds.), Making the connection: Language and academic achievement among African American students (pp. 1 - 30). VA: Center for Applied Linguistics.
- Rickford, J. R. (1998, March 25). Using the vernacular to teach the standard. Paper presented at the 1998 California State University Long Beach [CSULB] Conference on Ebonics. Retrieved June 11, 2002, from http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/papers/VernacularToTeachStandard.html
- Rickford, J. R. (1997, January 22). Letter to Senator Specter, Chairman, U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education. Retrieved December 17, 2002, from http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/SpecterLetter.html
- Rickford, J. R. (1996). The Oakland Ebonics decision: Commendable attack on the problem. Original text of the Op Ed article printed in the San Jose Mercury News, December 26, 1996. Retrieved December 17, 2002, from http://www.stanford.edu/~rickford/ebonics/SJMN-OpEd.html
- Schierloh, J. M. (1991).Teaching standard English usage: A dialect-based approach. Adult Learning, 2, 20-22.
- Smitherman, G. (1981). "What go round come round": King in perspective. In G. Smitherman (Ed.), Talkin that talk: Language, culture and education in African America (pp. 132-149). New York: Routledge.
- Steffensen, M., Reynolds, R., McClure, E., and Guthrie, L. (1982). Black English Vernacular and reading comprehension: A close study of third, sixth, and ninth graders. Journal of Reading Behavior, 3, 285-298.
- Taylor, H. U. (1991). Standard English, Black English, and bidialectalism: A controversy. New York: Peter Lang.
- Wheeler, R. S. (2001). From home speech to school speech: Vantages on reducing the achievement gap in inner city schools. The Virginia English Bulletin, 51, 4 - 16.
- Wolfram, W. (1999). Repercussions from the Oakland Ebonics controversy - The critical role of dialect awareness programs. In C. T. Adger, D. Christian, and O. Taylor (Eds.), Making the connection: Language and academic achievement among African American students (pp. 61 - 80). McHenry, IL: Delta Systems.
- Wolfram, W., Adger, C. T., and Christian, D. (Eds.). (1999). Dialects in schools and communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Wolfram, W. and Schilling-Estes, N. (1998). American English. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.
We thank the Language Arts referees and Editors for their remarkably meticulous and extremely helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.
Rebecca S. Wheeler is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Christopher Newport University.
Rachel Swords teaches second and third grade at Newsome Park Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia.
Download as PDF
Back to "Things To Consider" main page